The ovation had begun with warmth and admiration. Then, as people began to rise from their seats, it became something more, swelling and sustaining, even as the recipient of the applause sat down at his table near the stage.
Roger Jewell had just received the Freedom of Information Committee’s final “Sunshine Award” of the 2003 SPJ National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Now, the largest audience ever to attend the presentations was honoring him with something more precious than a plaque.
“I don’t think anything can match that feeling again,” Roger wrote to Region 3 Director Holly Fisher in an e-mail after the convention.
Two years ago, I shared with you the story of Roger’s tribulations as the managing editor and police/investigative reporter at the Monitor, the weekly newspaper in Traveler’s Rest, S.C.
The troubles began in 2000, after Roger wrote about allegations of abusive behavior by an officer. (Allegations that eventually led to an internal investigation and the officer’s dismissal from the force.)
Essentially, the town’s police chief began harassing Roger and the Monitor by automatically charging exorbitant fees to copy incident reports, whether the newspaper wanted copies or not.
Roger contacted Holly, who contacted me. Eventually, Roger came to an agreement with the city and the fees issue seemed to be put to rest. But earlier this year, following stories about an upward trend in the town’s crime rate, the police chief broke the agreement.
As I told the convention during the awards presentations, battling an arrogant and vindictive public official is one thing. But in August, the Monitor faced an even graver threat – arson.
It happened on a Sunday afternoon. Roger was on his way into work, as he often is on Sunday. Thankfully, many members of the Traveler’s Rest Volunteer Fire Department were in their headquarters near the newspaper office. As a result, when a citizen reported the fire, the volunteers were able to get to it quickly and put it out without much damage to the newspaper, despite the fact that the fire was started in two places.
As Roger told me before the convention, “They intended for the building not to be standing there.”
I’m pleased that the Monitor is still standing – and still printing. And I’m especially pleased that Roger Jewell could join us in Tampa and be on the receiving end of that ovation. He and his newspaper represent so much that happens at the local level – in small towns and rural counties – that we don’t necessarily hear about in the rarified air of national FOI issues.
Other news from the convention:
• FIGHTING “SLAPP” SUITS. SPJ, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and our First Amendment law firm of Baker & Hostetler have taken the first steps toward a nationwide campaign to enact state legislation limiting or prohibiting lawsuits known as SLAPP – Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation. Already, California has an excellent anti-SLAPP law, while more than a dozen other states have similar statutes. We now want to work to get strong anti-SLAPP laws on the books in all 50 states. SPJ has addressed the issue of SLAPPs before, notably in a 1999 special legal report. In Tampa, the SDX board agreed to provide $30,000 for Baker & Hostetler to draft a model anti-SLAPP law and create a lobbying strategy to build support in the various states. The motivation for this effort is a lawsuit filed in Cincinnati against people who were believed to be sources for investigative news stories broadcast by WCPO-TV. SPJ issued a news release on this issue in September, and the convention adopted a resolution calling for anti-SLAPP laws in all 50 states. (Both the release and the resolution are available online at spj.org.)
• THE 2004 FOI CONFERENCE. The SDX board also approved funds for a national FOI conference to be organized jointly by SPJ and the National Freedom of Information Coalition next May in New Jersey. The conference will follow up on the success of 2003’s joint SPJ-NFOIC gathering in Nashville and will feature the second group of inductions into the new State Open Government Hall of Fame. Watch this space for more information on that conference as it draws nearer.
• CAMPUS CRIME. SPJ’s FOI Subcommittee on Campus Crime is working toward congressional passage of the David Shick Honesty In Campus Justice Act. That act would require colleges receiving federal money to release disciplinary records not protected by federal law on student privacy. The convention also adopted a resolution supporting that effort. My thanks to former SPJ President Carolyn Carlson for her unflagging energy on this issue.
•THE COMMITTEE. As noted in last month’s issue, I have turned over leadership of the FOI Committee to Charles Davis of Missouri and Joel Campbell of Utah. Their pictures will begin appearing in this column starting in December. In Tampa, Charles and Joel chaired their first FOI Committee meeting at a convention. I can report that it was well-attended, lively and productive. SPJ members can feel confident that we have an active corps of people working on the issue, including two active and dedicated co-chairs. Look for news of their activities and accomplishments in these pages.
Ian Marquand is special projects coordinator for the Montana Television Network.